Gaddafi’s troops gain in Libya as civil war looms

Insurgents pushed back near leader’s hometown; "Gaddafi’s cut us to pieces"; Hague says UK diplomatic team forced to leave Libya.

Libya rebels 311 Reuters  (photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Libya rebels 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih)
Libyan forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi waged counter-offensives against rebel-held towns on Sunday, as the popular uprising threatened to devolve into a full-fledged, protracted civil war.
Gaddafi’s troops, backed by tanks, artillery, warplanes and helicopters, attacked the towns of Zawiyah and Misrata, to the immediate west and east of Tripoli, respectively, and positions near the oil port city of Ras Lanuf, 660 km. east of the capital.
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Government forces pushed the insurgents out of Bin Jawad – a town they had captured just the day before – on the road to Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and a prize they are keen to capture. Hundreds of rebels in pickups and vehicles suddenly tore back at high-speed to the key rebel-held oil town of Ras Lanuf, with many saying they feared an army advance. It was their second retreat from the town in a day.
“Gaddafi’s cut us to pieces. He’s firing on us with tanks and missiles. I don’t know what we’re going to do now,” one rebel said.
Rebels surrounded by Gaddafi troops near the center of Zawiyah, 50 km. west of Tripoli, faced another onslaught on Sunday after repelling two major assaults by tanks and infantry the day before.
“This morning, there was a new attack, bigger than yesterday. There were one and a half hours of fighting... Two people were killed from our side and many more injured,” a rebel spokesman said by telephone. “We are still in full control of the square,” he added.
Government spokesmen proclaimed a series of swift victories and Gaddafi loyalists poured into the streets of Tripoli at daybreak to fire weapons into the air, holding portraits of the leader who has led the OPEC oil and gas producer for 41 years.
Loyalist forces appear determined to keep a tight grip on Tripoli. Members of Libya’s 32nd Brigade, led by Gaddafi’s son Khamis, were stationed at checkpoints in and around Tripoli. The 32nd is the most elite of three “regime protection units,” which together total about 10,000 men, US officials said. The three units are the only armed forces directly loyal to Gaddafi.
“These are celebrations because government forces have taken control of all areas to Benghazi and are in the process of taking control of Benghazi,” spokesman Mussa Ibrahim said in Tripoli, referring to Libya’s second city, situated in the far east. But the celebrations appeared to be premature as Benghazi remained firmly under rebel control.
Gaddafi’s elite brigades also launched an assault on Misrata, 200 km. east of the capital.
“The brigades tried to reach the center of the town but revolutionaries managed to repel them. They retreated to the air base,” a resident said. “The revolutionaries captured 20 soldiers and seized a tank. The town is now fully in the control of the youths.”
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Government forces used tanks and artillery in what appeared to be their most concerted effort yet to retake Misrata, but were pushed back by rebels, residents said.
“Today Misrata witnessed the toughest battle since the beginning of the revolution.
Horrible attacks,” one local said. “They came from three sides and managed to enter the town from the west and south, but when they reached the center of Misrata the rebels pushed them back.”
A doctor said 18 people had been killed.
Meanwhile on Sunday, a British diplomatic team, which is reported to have included special forces soldiers, left Libya after being captured by rebels in Benghazi.
Britain said the team left Libya after running into difficulties. It did not mention the special forces soldiers.
Foreign Secretary William Hague said the problems the team had encountered had been “satisfactorily resolved” and Britain would send another delegation to meet rebel leaders soon.
“This diplomatic effort is part of the UK’s wider work on Libya, including our ongoing humanitarian support,” he said.
Earlier, the Sunday Times had reported that the eight armed but plain-clothed soldiers belonged to the Special Air Service.
A Libyan human rights activist with links to the rebels told Reuters the team was seized because they had aroused suspicion.
“They [the rebel army] did capture some British special forces. They could not ascertain if they were friends or foes,” the source in Benghazi said, adding that he did not understand why British authorities did not contact rebels ahead of time to explain the mission’s purpose.
Also on Sunday, Libyan denied having been contacted over Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s plan to create an international peace mission to mediate in the uprising.
“We have not heard of this and were not contacted officially by anyone wanting to negotiate,” a rebel spokesman told a news conference in Benghazi. Asked if the rebels would respond positively, he said: “It depends on what they present to us, but we are acting on the demands of our people and we cannot forgo those demands.”